Whither the Socialist Left? Thinking the “Unthinkable”


Published by Portside
March 6, 2013

On February 4, 2010 The Gallop Poll released its latest data on the public’s political attitudes. The headline read: “Socialism Viewed Positively by 36% of Americans.” While the poll did not attempt the daunting task of exploring what a diverse public understood socialism to mean, it nevertheless revealed an unmistakably sympathetic image of a system that had been pilloried for generations by all of capitalism’s dominant instruments of learning and information as well as by its power to suppress and slander socialist ideas and organization.

In sheer numbers, that means a population at the teen-age level and above of tens of millions with a favorable view of socialism.

Why then is the organized socialist movement in the United States so small and so clearly wanting in light of the potential for building its numbers and influence?

That is a crucial question. At every major juncture in the history of the country, radical individuals and organizations in advance of the mainstream have played essential roles in influencing, guiding and consolidating broad currents for social change. In the revolution that birthed this country, radical activists articulated  demands from the grass roots for an uncompromising and transforming revolution to crush colonial oppression. Black and white abolitionists fought to make the erasure of slavery the core objective of the Civil War while also linking that struggle to women’s suffrage and trade unionism. A mass Socialist Party in the early 20th century fought for state intervention to combat the ravages of an increasingly exploitative economic system while advancing the vision of a socialist commonwealth. In the Great Depression, the Communist Party and its allies fought the devastations of the crisis – helping to build popular movements to expand  democracy, grow industrial unions and defend protections for labor embodied in the historic New Deal.

Small left and socialist organizations in the sixties supported a range of progressive struggles from peace to civil rights to women’s liberation to gay rights and beyond. The limited resources of those groups were effective in galvanizing massive peace demonstrations and in campaigns against racist and sexist oppression.
But the Cold War and McCarthyism had eviscerated any hope for a major influential socialist current. Consequently, no large and impacting force existed to extend to the peace movement a coherent anti-imperial analysis that might have contributed to its continuity and readiness to confront the wars of the nineties and the new century. Nor was there a strong socialist organization to contribute to the civil rights struggle by advocating for reform joined to a commitment to deeper social transformation. Had such a current existed, it might have contributed to building a broad protective barrier against the devastating FBI and local police violence against sectors of the movement like the Black Panthers.

There should be little debate today on the left over the need for a strong socialist voice and movement in light of festering economic stagnation, war on the working class, looming environmental catastrophe, a widening chasm between the super-rich and the rest of us, massive joblessness and incarceration savaging African Americans and other oppressed nationalities, crises in health care, housing and education. Such a strong socialist presence could offer a searching analysis of the present situation, help stimulate a broad public debate on short term solutions and formulate a vision of a socialist future that could begin to reach the minds and hearts of the 36 percent who claim to be sympathetic to that vision.

Back to the question: why is there no large respected socialist organization today? The answer is complex and not readily subject to a consensus. The failures of the first socialist wave in the 20th century, the unrelenting demonization of socialism by the dominant political apparatus, internal sectarian cultures and narrow social composition that inhibit outreach to youth and oppressed nationalities – have all contributed to a weak socialist presence.

Doubtless, some if not all, existing socialist organizations would insist that they are growing, respected and effective. That can be argued, but it is valid to acknowledge that existing socialist groups, to one degree or another, have made and continue to make important contributions to the struggle for a just present and better future. This is especially true of the work of individual socialists in various unions and mass organizations.

However, the small size and inadequate resources or socialist organization nearly fatally inhibit their impact and influence. No matter how hard working and principled, small socialist groups are drowned out by the power and pervasiveness of the dominant tools of information and education. The Internet has opened a
window to reaching mass audiences. But socialist websites (if one is successful in locating them) cannot substitute for the indispensable task of organizational outreach, of human beings making direct contact with other human beings, of physical debate and discussion, of well-orchestrated, highly visible mass actions.

The time has come to work for the convergence of socialist organizations committed to non-sectarian democratic struggle, engagement with mass movements, and open debate in search of effective responses to present crises and to projecting a socialist future.

There are socialist organizations already airing  divergent views within their ranks – reflecting  positions that overlap with other socialist  organizations committed to democratic struggle and  socialist education. The Committees of Correspondence  for Democracy and Socialism, the Communist Party USA,  Democratic Socialists of America and the Freedom Road  Socialist Organization have been meeting to explore  areas for cooperation in advancing the fight to defend  the needs and interests of all working people. With  involvement of their members, and with all who  honestly wish a unity project to succeed, those  organizations could constitute a starting point for  other left and socialist groups and individuals to  join as equal participants in building an imaginative,  revitalized socialist presence.

A conversation with a veteran socialist historian about merger brought a nearly apoplectic response: that will never happen; too much history of mutual antagonism; too much institutional self-aggrandizement; too much belief within each organization of their ideological and strategic “certainties,” etc.

His bleak assessment may well be valid. One could list even more problems: the comfort of organizational silos, the complexity of sorting out and merging the physical resources of each organization, selecting a conjoined leadership, lingering political and ideological differences.

It can also be argued that a merger of organizations with a combined membership of a few thousand would still not be large or vibrant enough to make an impact on a country of over 300 million; nor would its combined membership include a sufficient component of youth, African Americans, Latinos, Asians, etc., commensurate with the country’s changing demographics.

That perhaps misses a crucial point. While growth and dynamism are not guaranteed, the open-minded and comradely spirit embodied in a merger could excite and inspire thousands of former members of those organizations to join a new, collaborative entity. Many others impressed by a revitalized commitment by socialists to put aside narrow interests and seek common ground could also be moved to join. The simple declaration of unity and amalgamation by old ideological foes will stir an energized, hopeful response on the left.

Among socialist organizations there is a long tradition of opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia; a concrete record of unwavering struggle for racial and gender justice as indispensable to all working class aspirations. With that experience and consciousness a renewed socialist organization with augmented resources would have the potential to speak directly to young people of color, to the jailed and formerly jailed, to a new generation of students, to teen aged youth, to the large numbers who joined the Occupy movement, the unaffiliated leftists and socialists who have joined the rapidly growing Jacobin journal, Labor Notes, the large Left Forums, the Left Labor Project, etc. Whatever its initial form, an alliance of socialists offers the promise of a continuous, enduring framework for democratic struggle, for discussion, for debate, for learning, for growing – all within a stable, political and organizational environment.

With a visible presence for outreach to emerging but undefined left forces, a merged socialist movement could presumably generate the financial resources to hire and train young organizers. With stronger organization derived from convergence, it could tap latent left and socialist sentiment in “red states,” especially the  South and Midwest that would reawaken the truly national presence of socialism that characterized the Socialist Party in the early 20th century.

Those augmented resources could open up space for expanded socialist education through debate and discussion, through a combination of new publications and continuing publications of the merged organizations, through classes, think tanks and through utilization of the Internet.  The present Online University of the Left is an excellent example of the potential for utilization on a large scale of new technology for socialist education.

Despite the enormous challenges inherent in convergence, there are a number of reasons to anticipate readiness for unified socialist organizing:

  1. First and foremost, the present crisis of world capitalism is systemic. While there will continue to be economic peaks and valleys, the overall prognosis is for enervation and stagnation that will increasingly demonstrate capitalism’s declining ability to provide decent lives for present and future generations.
  2. There is likely agreement among various organizations on the need for a long-range socialist transformation. There is a likely consensus on the validity of Marx’s basic critique of the contradictions inherent in capitalism: increasingly socialized production colliding with private appropriation of the fruits of that production – constituting the key source of the system’s inherent instability. Historically, the relations of production (manifested in social classes) become fetters upon the productive forces (human beings and machinery) – thus requiring the overturning of the old system – socializing the relations of production in order to bring them into harmony with highly socialized productive forces. With globalization of capital that contradiction between social production and private appropriation has itself become global – resulting in the accumulation of unimaginable wealth by a small minority while masses languish in deepening poverty and social misery.
  3. There is likely agreement that both the path to socialism and its essential character are subjects for study, debate and experimentation. There is much to study: the “solidarity economy” posits 21st century socialism with workers’ control of all essential institutions, a market function and imperative ecological concern.  There are a growing number of experiments in cooperatives, workers’ self-management, and local public ownership of energy. Other approaches stress confrontation with corporate power through mass struggle for control of state policy – aiming to expand the public sphere while reducing and eventually eliminating  corporate control of the economy and society. In sum, a new socialist organization will open avenues to fresh, challenging exploration of social transformation.
  4. There is a likely consensus among socialists that “vanguard” organizations and sectarian “cadre” groups have been negated by the existence of a broadly heterogeneous multiracial working class of women and men. The present-day working class and its allies are too diverse to be led by a single, narrowly conceived political current. A renewed socialist organization must reflect that heterogeneity as well as the determination of members to be full, controlling participants in present struggles and in charting a socialist future. The new organization’s structure would likely be neither fully “vertical” nor fully “horizontal.” In the past the former has often undermined democratic participation and the latter (illustrated by the experience of the Occupy movement) has often led to organizational incoherence and stasis.
  5. There is likely agreement that there should be no preexisting, standard for socialist organizing that mandates a “take it or leave it” rigidity. The door should be open to experimentation in exploring both organizational and theoretical issues. There is also likely agreement for the short-and-medium-term at least that a  converged organization should not be formed as party or electoral organization. The electoral issue, a major point of contention on the left, could be a major topic of exploration and debate. There should be no obstacles for those who sincerely wish to join the struggle against the ravages of the system and who seek a socialist alternative. In that regard it is important to note the variety of left and socialist movements around the world worthy of study. Clearly, there is no single “correct” path to 21st century socialism.

Greece, in the midst of existential crisis, has given rise to Syriza, merging a remarkable range of organizations despite sharply different ideological and historical roots into a unified party whose platform rejects austerity, demands the cancellation of Greece’s debt and reform of the European Central Bank. Syriza emerged in 2001 from a group called “Space for Dialogue for the Unity and Common Action of the Left.” In June 2012, Syriza received  almost27% of the vote in parliamentary elections, making it the main opposition party and positioning it as the potential future governing party.

In France, a coalition of left and socialist parties has formed a Left-Front coalition that ran a unified campaign in the last national elections. Germany has “Die Linke,” the Left Party formed from a coalition of the successors to the old ruling party in the German Democratic Republic and a militant West German labor organization. An all-European Left Party is a continental formation of an impressive array of left and socialist parties and organizations. Latin America is perhaps the region with the greatest left and socialist experimentation that generally stresses democratic and participatory engagement at the grass roots in building alternatives to capitalism. The Latin American left in particular has advanced some of the most compelling interpretations of Marx’s thinking concerning the crucial issues of ecological preservation and survival. It has also engendered, country-by-country a variety of social experiments based upon distinct national conditions involving various degrees of mixed, transitional economies on the road to socialism.

Speaking only for myself, I would like to see the creation of an entirely new organization. However, a total merger of organizations at this time can justly be viewed as utopian at best and naïve at worst. One must acknowledge the need for a patient process – for ongoing consultation, for gradual building of mutual comfort and mutual confidence, for a possible stage of confederation or alliance. Crucially, joint activities to defeat austerity and the right wing offensive constitute a sound basis at this juncture on the road to convergence. In the long term, the next generation and generations beyond will determine the form and content of the struggle for social transformation based on changed circumstances that cannot now be fully envisioned.

That does not negate the need for “all deliberate speed” in building an advanced, effective political instrument to help forge the linkages between the economic crisis, the environmental crisis and the crisis of militarism and war. That instrument is needed to help provide political depth and interconnectedness to burgeoning movements on the environment, immigration, gun control, women’s rights, the prison-industrial complex, voting rights, student debt, protection of Social Security and Medicare, jobs and union rights, and the struggle against interventionism and the national security state. Above all, the urgency of the deepening crisis of capitalism demands the political will of socialist organizations to take those bold and resolute steps to forming a strong new alliance capable of having a powerful and lasting impact on the struggle for justice, peace and a socialist future.

[Mark Solomon is past national co-chair of the United States Peace Council and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. He is author of The Cry Was Unity: Communists and African Americans, 1917-1936 and is currently working on a memoir/narrative at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard University on the freedom and peace movements in the 1940s and 1950s.]


Posted by Portside on March 6, 2013

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  • Whenever I read about the history of socialism in this country or any other name dropping starts appearing, like old football players talking about the days of Johny Unitas. I've been to a lot of peace and justice rallies where people would opine on the days of civil rights and Rosa Parks. But what the hell were they all fighting for, so we could preach them into glory or so we could carry the ball forward and win the game? We spend entirely too much time in hagiography and not enough time in talking about how to get back in the game. If you won the golden gloves in 1963 that's a good thing, if you want to win the game in 2013 that's another matter altogether. What we need is to stop name dropping Marx and Lenin, and get a new play book for today's game. Be flexible. If we're in it to win it we will. If we're just in it to be in it so we can feel good about ourselves that we're the real grown ups in the room then that isn't going to do a thing for us. There comes a time when we have to think outside the box, we invented the idea of thinking outside the box, maybe we should consider that fact.....we all know what the box is and its got us boxed in. If we keep doing the same thing expecting a different result that's what's landed us where we are. We have our principles. That's not the issue, it's how to practically apply those principles to changing circumstances. And I don't want to hear another Chinese Communist Party member talk about Communism with Chinese Characteristics. That's a cop out. That reminds me of a person who is going into retirement trying to figure the best way to get a 401k and a nice easy mortgage on a fixed income. Now come on people. The USSR didn't stand up one day because people were name dropping talking about ideological principles and how to get an easy out. If you're going to be in the auto race then you don't do it because you like the thrill of running around the track feeling the wind in your hair, you do it because you want to cross the finish line, leap on the fence and drink the milk. It's a box, think outside of it, way the hell outside of it, get a winning team. -J

    Posted by jesse leamon, 06/12/2013 2:11am (6 years ago)

  • I read Bruce Bostick's cri de couer below with the greatest sympathy. The CP-USA went through this soul searching before. Starting with Jay Lovestone and continuing through the CPA and Browder, the Party has looked at its role and effectiveness in the light of operating in the foremost capitalist country in the world. There have always been two tendencies in response to this reality. The first is assimilationist and pragmatic: do what brings down the least repression and is maximally attractive to the masses, even if it means diluting the basic principles of class struggle.

    The second is what I would call the Ark of Marxism-Leninism strategy: build a well-found, stout walled vessel to ride out the floods of repression and not give away the Party's vanguard revolutionary soul. This strategy in effect puts the party into a protective hibernation.

    The times have changed and the second strategy is no longer needed. The Party can have its soul and also not get smashed by the inevitable reactionary backlash. It must not give up the idea of class struggle, but must get to the basic core concepts of Marx and Engels and yes, Buddha and Christ: compassion and sympathy for the toiling masses and an unbridled desire to uplift them.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 05/30/2013 1:16pm (6 years ago)

  • Mark Solomon has written a marvelous essay on this topic and it is hard to add or subtract anything from his analysis. But "fools rush in" and here I go.

    First, it is absolutely crucial that the CP-USA recognize the responsibility it has for maintaining itself and the living link it represents to 1905. It is THE communist party in this country and so should remain. This automatically sets restraints on its own self-modification. The living, vital option it presents must be kept open to the people and now foreclosed by becoming subsumed in some type of leftist melting pot.

    Second, the forces in America that oppose reform are for all practical purposes, unbeatable in ordinary circumstances and shall remain so short of some cataclysmic event. A revolutionary vanguard party must recognize this reality. Essentially the left in America lives under the toleration of the right, and every time the left has grown strong enough to challenge the order, a circuit breaker flips somewhere, and the right cracks down. Every time.

    Third, there is fall and there is redemption. The greatest obstacle to the CP-USA historically has been the masses themselves! The American majority tribal identity rejects foreign elements and this tribalism has risen to reject communism over and again. To change the tribal mindset is going to take time and will be a long haul but it can be done. American communism was virtually annihilated in the great repressions of the Truman-Eisenhower administrations. That was the Fall, and the Party has been wandering in the wilderness ever since. But Americans cherish a narrative of redemption to complement every fall and the redemptive route is through grace or good works. What is being argued by right assimilationists is the route of grace: being "saved" so to speak, by rejecting the inner evil of being communist. I want to argue the other route: salvation through good works. The CP-USA need not change its essential identity, but can use its energies to become a revolutionarily compassionate party to help relieve suffering from the needy, the oppressed and the stricken. I think this is the way out of the wilderness. Where there is a disaster, let the CP be there first with aid, where there is hunger, let the CP be first there with food, where there is unemployment, let the CP support and aid the undemployed. Doing good works with no expectation of increasing the membership roles or teaching M-L, or seeking publicity, is genuine revolutionary compassion and provides its own stamp of authentic redemption.

    Popular Front type coalitions are fine. By all means the CP-USA should take advantage of the leverage provided, but when it comes down to watering down its own basic identity for the sake of leveraging power...that is the road I hope it will not take.

    Posted by Michael Sweney, 05/30/2013 10:50am (6 years ago)

  • When it comes to building organizations that can generate major influence what are the characteristics of organizations that have done so in the past? For this analysis it does not matter whether they are of the left or the right or of some other categorization, only that they have been able to grow rapidly and generate influence for their agenda.

    The profit motive of capitalism seems totally protean. It stands for nothing but the power to grow. Generate a profit, reinvest it, get bigger, generate a profit and repeat.

    Could a socialist organization follow the model in some respect? Generate X, Use X to expand organizational structure, get bigger, generate more X. Repeat.

    What would X be? How would X expand the organization? Does anyone have an idea?

    Posted by JW, 04/14/2013 2:35am (6 years ago)

  • Well, I hear the frustration people are expressing, and I don't think anyone in the party, including Sam, would say they're happy about the decision to support the Democrats. As I'm sure everyone commenting here knows, it was a decision based on a realistic assessment of the current political climate. I don't like it either, but I do agree with the assessment. There's no way in hell a communist or socialist will become present as things stand now, and it IS important to do something to confront the ultra right.

    Unpalatable as the choice is, the Democratic party is the organization that can prevail against the Republicans. Corporate, capital-serving, undemocratic - yes, they're all that and more, but - the alternative is still worse. Supporting them is not a great answer, but at least it may buy some time for the left to consider other courses of action.

    If, that is, there is really any time left to buy. Maybe the fascism has already gone too far. I don't know, but I'd like to think it hasn't.

    What I do believe is that Mr. Solomon is right. The American left has to come together. We have to be willing to not be hung up on our respective labels - communist, socialist, social democrat, etc. - lay aside matters on which we don't agree, and focus on areas where we do agree.

    Bottom line, to my mind, is working people in this country have been taking a beating for 30 years, ever since Reagan came to power. If communists, unions, socialists and all the rest of us don't rise up and speak with some kind of united voice, it's only going to get worse.

    Do we really want sweat shops, child labor and 'company-store slavery' back? Do we want segregation back? Do we want our elders digging through dumpsters to eat in their old age?

    All that and worse is coming if the working class doesn't stand up and unite.

    Posted by BearCat 7, 04/12/2013 12:20pm (6 years ago)

  • Great and informative article! I would like to see more Communist activists running for office, however, and I would like to see a much stronger Communist Party emerging to challenge the failed capitalist system that is ruining the U.S. Why won't Sam Webb run on a national level, or has he considered it? In these times I would think that he and the Communist Party would see a much stronger level of support from American workers. Yes, Obama was a much better choice than Mitt Romney, but he is still a corporatist. We need a true socialist in power!

    Posted by Pat Hudnall, 04/05/2013 3:42pm (6 years ago)

  • I agree with Bruce B. Where's the indignation, the anger, the program for workers?
    Things are bad in the country and getting worse.
    Further weaking the Party's program and organizational standards won't move the struggle forward.
    Want to see what happens when Communist Parties discolve and merge with social democratic tendencies? Look up Eurocommunism.
    It's time that trade unionists and other workers in the party spoke up.

    Posted by Les Bayless, 04/05/2013 12:10pm (6 years ago)

  • The termination of the catastrophic split of 1919 through reunification has always been a dream of mine. Here's hoping.

    Posted by Tim Davenport, 04/01/2013 8:58pm (6 years ago)

  • Professor Solomon grew up in New York City during the years when a proportional election system was used and Communists and Labor Party candidates were elected. This essay makes special mention of Syriza in Greece and Die Linke in Germany, both of which have grown and benefitted from proportional election systems. If socialists are serious about creating a democratic system of governance it will be necessary to do so under multi-party conditions, since it should be now clear to all that the working class has more than one political expression.

    Posted by Pete Healey, 03/31/2013 6:01pm (6 years ago)

  • Aren't the CPUSA and DSA more closely tied to the Democrats than independent socialist politics? Also, why weren't the Socialist Party, Solidarity and the Fredom Socialist Party considered?

    Posted by Art Kazar, 03/31/2013 5:41pm (6 years ago)

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